Go back to the Ibsen page for more texts and other resources.

Significance of Mrs. Alving’s choices in Ghosts

The choices made by Helena Alving, the central character of Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen define her as they reflect her personality and dispositions. She can be easily understood in terms of the choices that she makes as she abides by societal norms

The choices made by Helena Alving, the central character of Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen define her as they reflect her personality and dispositions. She can be easily understood in terms of the choices that she makes as she abides by the norms that society has imposed upon her, subverting her personal beliefs and values to those of duty. The dutiful role of wife and mother is thrust upon her: the choice to follow her own path is withheld by the narrow society that she exists in. The choices withheld by such a society therefore limit personal choice, she does not have the power to have an individual choice as all the decisions she makes are induced by the fact she is forced to abide by social norms, to adhere to her duty as wife and mother. This leads to her personal tragedy as the discrepancy between her beliefs and her actions cause her to lead an unhappy life and to make decisions that hurt not only herself, but also the ones she loves in order to appease the society she exists within.

Choice is central to the whole idea of Ghosts, but it is ironic that the freedom of choice is not given to Mrs. Alving as the nature of the narrow society she lives in offers little scope of opportunity. She is left with two choices, either to abide by societal norms imposed upon her or to retain her individuality and be shunned by society. Mrs. Alving?s choice to conform and to grudgingly accept her duty as wife and mother influences all other decisions she makes from that point on. The fact that she chooses to conform rather than to rebel reflects her personality and upbringing. Mrs. Alving is by nature an agreeable person. This is shown in the play by Mrs. Alving being willing to please Pastor Manders: with her agreeing with everything he says with her response on more than one occasion being ?I quite agree?. Her agreeable nature thus lends itself to her conformity rather than possible rebellion against society. This is shown with the initial choice she makes: to marry Mr. Alving rather than to follow her heart and marry Pastor Manders, the man she truly loves. She ?didn?t consult (her)self at all? on the issue, and felt bound by social expectations to marry Mr. Alving as ?it?d be sheer madness to refuse an offer like that.? The choice to marry Mr. Alving against her better judgment in the first place shows that she feels compelled to abide by expectations rather than her personal beliefs. This initial choice is again reinforced when after one ?utterly miserable? year of marriage Mrs. Alving ran away from her husband but was forced to return by Pastor Manders. He insisted that she ?submit, in all obedience? to her ?duty? as wife and mother, despite her unhappiness in marriage. Her decision to conform rather to rebel and refuse to return to her husband affects all other choices made in the play, as her insistence on adhering to her ?duty? forces to her make certain choices as the restrictions of duty also place restrictions on choice.

The nature of the ?duty? imposed on Mrs. Alving is shaped by the expectations of society in regards to gender roles. The expectations of women in the narrow-minded society Mrs. Alving lives in shapes the nature of the ?duty? of wife and mother enforced on her, and the narrowness of this stereotype curbs the range of options available to her in times of crisis. ?It?s not a wife?s place to judge her husband? and when it came to the ?excesses? and infidelities of her husband Mrs. Alving was expected ?to bear it with patience? rather than to ?cast off the cross? and desert ?the sinner whom (she) should have helped?. With expectations such as these coupled with public opinion that Mr. Alving was ?industrious? and ?affectionate? ?, it is little wonder that Mrs. Alving felt compelled as a dutiful wife to cover up his dissolute ways with a constant stream of lies. As a result of her lies, Mr. Alving became ?one of those men whose life had no effect on his reputation?. The extent of the lies needed to cover up such a large discrepancy between the unblemished public opinion of Mr. Alving in comparison to the ugly reality of his private life. While these lies serve as part of Mrs. Alving?s duty to her husband, these lies trap her into her role and her individuality becomes fully suppressed. It is only when the actual drama begins that Mrs. Alving begins to feel that she ?must somehow free (her)self? by ridding her life of ?those duties and obligations?, and this can only be done by dismantling the wall of lies she has built up around her life. Ironically this decision has come too late and her lies have had their effect, most notably on Osvald and Regina.

Mrs. Alving went to extreme lengths to conceal Mr. Alving?s dissolute ways, and her decisions were largely based on the need to continue to suppress the truth about Mr. Alving?s life, even to the point of building an Orphanage in his honor ?to refute all the rumours and dispel any doubts? about the truth behind Mr. Alving?s perfect public persona. Mrs. Alving also made decisions aimed at hiding the truth about Mr. Alving, but which affected characters in the play apart from herself and her husband. Her decision to send Osvald away for his protection so that he would not be ?poisoned by the unwholesome atmosphere? of the house was a measure to hide the truth as ?He was seven then, and beginning to notice things and ask questions?. The need to hide the truth also affected Regina, who was denied the knowledge of who her father really was, and was denied the upbringing that a daughter of a chamberlain should have had, instead serving as a maid for Mrs. Alving. Mrs. Alving?s choices and their effects on both Osvald and Regina cause her to be ?haunted by ghosts?. Mrs. Alving?s decision to return to her husband and the subsequent lies aimed at covering of Mr. Alving?s past have their direct effects on Osvald and Regina, who mirror the past. Osvald mirrors his rather with his drinking, smoking his passes at Regina even with Pastor Manders commenting ?it was like seeing his father in the flesh?. Regina mirrors her mother with her involvement with Osvald, saying ?Stop it Osvald! Don?t be silly! Let me go!? much in the way her mother said to Mr. Alving, ?Leave go, sir ? let me be!? If Mrs. Alving had not covered up the truth about Mr. Alving and had let society know his true colours, Osvald may not have had to bear the ?sins? of his father and would not have suffered from congenital syphilis. For certain, if Mrs. Alving had not returned to Mr. Alving she would not have had to have upheld a veil of lies to ensure his life had no effect on his reputation, Osvald would not have been born and the sins of Mr. Alving would not have been visited upon further generations. Mrs. Alving?s lies not only have consequences for herself, but devastating consequences for those around her: hurting those who she wished to protect.

Mrs. Alving?s choices lead to her personal tragedy as the choice of duty over personal happiness makes it impossible for her to ever experience freedom or true happiness. Mrs. Alving sacrifices herself to a false truth; her own freedom is restricted by her choice to have her life seen by society only through a veil of lies. She is trapped by her lies and the societal values imposed upon her. Mrs. Alving is effectively a victim of society, the suppression of her personal values to the values imposed by society forces her to subvert her individuality to the stereotype of wife and mother. As a result, Mrs. Alving is not able to lead a fulfilling life: she had to live with a husband she did not love until his death as a result of syphilis, she was forced to lie about every aspect of her life and in doing so she had to send away Osvald, her only source of personal happiness. The irony of Ghosts lies in the fact that just as Mrs. Alving is beginning to regain her individuality through the means of reading subversive books and the need to finally the truth about her life to free herself, the damage is already done and it has become too late to repair any damage. The grasping of personal happiness becomes impossible for her as Osvald goes into dementia and Mrs. Alving is left with a final choice: to help with the death of her son or to nurse him in his dementia until his death. Either way any hope of happiness is effectively off the cards. Despite all the sacrifices she made, by her lies, the suppression of her personal feelings and the sending away of her son she was not able to save her son from the ghosts of Mr. Alving and the choices she made and the lies she kept up could do nothing to protect her son. A lifetime of unhappiness and lies for her is fruitless, destroying the one thing she did everything to protect: her son.

In Ghosts Mrs. Alving is effectively given two choices: to abide by expectations or to rebel against societal norms. The choices she makes are centered on her belief in ?duty? as a wife to Mr. Alving and a mother to Osvald. In her conformity, she is shown to be agreeable, easily influenced and eager to please those around her. She does this in marrying Mr. Alving, in returning to him and remaining faithful despite his ?excesses? and in doing everything possible to conceal her husband?s dissolute ways and to maintain his flawless public image, even after his death. Her main aim in this is not only to protect the truth about her husband from coming out and creating scandal, but also to protect her son from the sins of his father. All the choices she makes are with this in mind, and it is ironic that despite all her efforts to protect her son from his father, she ultimately could not shield him from his sins taking the form of congenital syphilis, leading to Osvald?s dementia. The choices she makes are aimed at maintaining the lies about Mr. Alving, and the continual lies rather than the revealing of the truth, which comes too late, is the cause of the unhappiness and suffering in Mrs. Alving?s life: an unhappiness which she is never able to escape from.

Authors | Quotes | Digests | Submit | Interact | Store

Copyright © Classics Network. Contact Us